As a passionate affair between two 20th century icons, Jan Kounen’s Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky is a perfumed symphony of style. But where are the heart notes?
Notes On A Scandal by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Like the famous mirrored stairway in the apartment above the fashion house’s flagship store on rue Cambon, there are many faces to Chanel – from Coco herself to Catherine Deneuve, Carole Bouquet, Vanessa Paradis, Nicole Kidman, Audrey Tautou and finally Anna Mouglalis. Handpicked by Karl Lagerfeld, the creative director of Chanel, in 2002, Anna Mouglalis (in familiarly French fashion) is part-actress, part-model. Her stylish swagger cross-screen is pure catwalk, conferring a modern-day elegance on the icon to surpass even Coco herself. It’s a sharp contrast to Tautou’s more gamine Chanel, with her familiar masculine mannerisms. But Mouglalis is entirely believable as a strong, fiercely independent businesswoman who refuses to become Stravinsky’s maîtresse. She is Chanel.
A cynic might argue a film with Stravinsky composing the piano score to The Rite Of Spring in Chanel’s out-of-town house Bel Respiro could hardly go far wrong. With a ready-made musical score and monochrome Modernist decor, Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky only needs the scent of an affair, delicately provided by Chris Greenhalgh’s source novel. Jan Kounen’s job may have been made easy, but it’s a darkly stylish adaptation, bringing music and fashion together, like a perfumed firebird, into a symmetrical pattern of piano keys, musical scores, scented bass notes and Art Deco curlicues. Black and white abstraction swamps the screen, Chanel’s monochrome wallpaper covered up only by Stravinsky’s colour-craving wife.
The symmetry begins with the notorious 1913 performance at the Théâtre de Champs-Élysées of the Sacre Du Printemps, accompanied by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and attended by Chanel. Sparking a riot, the performance has to be abandoned as the crowd go wild at Stravinsky’s dissonant music and Nijinsky’s jumping dancers, baiting them with catcalls to find a dentist. Kounen’s thrilleristic approach really brings the set-piece to life, electrified perhaps by his own experience of being booed by an audience with Blueberry. While Coco and Igor don’t actually meet, Chanel is visibly moved by his music. And this absent encounter bookends the film with a parallel sequence at the end of Chanel in her suite at the Ritz and Stravinsky in New York, both in their final year, 1971. Parallel lives which intersect only for a summer.
Grieving the death of her one true love Boy Capel, Coco Chanel meets Stravinsky at a party in 1920. They barely speak, but she hands him a note, and the following day they meet at Paris’s Natural History Museum, intentions unknown. This uncertainty makes space for flirtation; eyelashes, whispers and smiles. And as Chanel invites the impoverished émigré Stravinsky and his family to her villa to work, the lines are blurred between patronne and maîtresse. The electricity between Coco and Igor becomes tangible, a restrained passion between two coolly composed cosmopolitans. Brought together by their shared Modernist ambitions as much as their need to overcome grief and misfortune, the lovers inspire each other; Chanel invents her signature perfume, all abstract notes and aldehydes, while Stravinsky pens his monumental scores – ‘Russian spirit adulterated with French perfume’ in the words of Rimsky-Korsakov.
The modiste’s monochrome apparel evolves from black to white as she loses her grief in a new-found passion. But every time the music stops, Stravinsky’s watchful wife Katia knows something’s up. It’s a curious narrative compromise; sick from tuberculosis, she knows she cannot give Igor the intimacy he needs, but her refusal to be hoodwinked also transforms her into an ear-twitching Medusa-like shrew. Stravinsky, however, needs her – his childhood sweetheart, mother to his children and ill. And besides, she corrects his annotations. It’s a ménage à trois that Chanel ultimately refuses, only to be accepted a year later by Vera de Bosset, Stravinsky’s eventual second wife.
But this affair has nowhere to go; Igor refuses to abandon his wife and Coco refuses to be his mistress, accusing him of not being worth two women. In return, Stravinsky insults Chanel as a mere ‘vendeuse de tissus‘, a snub from which there’s no return. The fight seems to come out of nowhere, but as the affair ends they throw themselves into their work. Too hurt, hesitant or confused, they can’t make a clean break, and after a few failed reconciliations, Coco ends it with a kiss. It’s a symmetrical fizzle that parallels the slow-burn start of the affair, and culminates at the theatre in a performance of Stravinsky’s reworked Sacre, nodding to each other in mutual gratitude. In a final coda, as Chanel dies in her room at the Ritz, the two lives intertwine in memory. Travelling backwards through the empty spaces of Bel Respiro, she finds Stravinsky again. And in a monochrome dress, a Chanel robochka, she’s onstage in the Rite. She’s the girl dancing to death, sacrificing herself to the god of Spring. A frail moment of regret from the woman who refused to compromise.
A love story over decades, Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky neatly condenses this double biopic into one summer of love. Mads Mikkelsen and Anna Mouglalis are sublime; strong and silent types in Russian and in French. And despite a pale passion that never really sparks, Kounen’s narrative symmetry, extravagantly faithful set-pieces and monochrome Modernist sets are enough to create a frisson for every fashionista.
Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky is released in the UK on 6th August 2010.